GRANDMA KNEW BETTER, PART 3

THE CONTRARIAN
Part two talked about how the family farm has almost disappeared in favour of chemical dependent, soil destroying, modern industrial agriculture, and much of rural life has also disappeared. It didn’t have to be so. Grandma knew better.

My Dad`s cousin Leo was an award-winning successful dairy farmer in Saskatchewan when the fertilizer revolution took place, around the time of WW2. The next stage after granular ammonia-based fertilizer was to simply inject ammonia gas directly into the soil. Leo looked at the fields of some of his neighbours who were early adopters of this technology, and he saw no gophers, no groundhogs, no beetles nor any other kind of insects. He looked at the precautions that had to be taken to apply the stuff; it is after all an extremely toxic gas. Leo concluded that if it killed all visible life, it probably also killed all the microscopic life that is the heart and soul of healthy soil. He resolved he would not join that parade. After some research he settled on sweet clover as his solution.

Sweet clover is that tall, bushy plant with small white or yellow flowers sometimes seen along new highway construction; it grows a heavy crop under almost all circumstances. It is good quality animal feed, and very good at converting nitrogen from the air into nitrogen in the soil. Natures wonder plant. Except that it is really bad at causing bloat if pastured (cows get such indigestion that they swell up like a balloon, sometimes fatal). If not handled correctly in making silage, the silage can be toxic. It doesn’t dry down into very good hay. Beekeepers hate it, I am not sure why. It is so vigorous that once introduced to a farm it becomes the most prevalent weed (if a weed is a plant in the wrong place). So it is not, shall we say, fashionable as a farm crop.

Leo moved entirely into sweet clover. He pastured it, carefully managing so that his herd would not suffer bloat. He made silage out of it, carefully managing to ensure his silage was safe. Mostly, he plowed down heavy stands of it to enrich the soil so he could grow big crops of grasses for hay, and grains, without use of chemicals. His soil got better and better, he won provincial awards for his excellent Ayrshire dairy herd.

People are herd animals, including farmers, and it takes a lot of courage to go against the flow, to be different. Leo had that courage, but eventually he retired, and apparently so did sweet clover. But supposing we had taken a fraction of the effort put into herbicides and herbicide-resistant crops, and put it into developing new better varieties of sweet clovers and similar plants. With that, and some effort to develop better equipment for incorporating those massive crops into the soil, might agriculture look a lot different than it does now? Might we even still have family farms, and vibrant rural communities?

Why haven’t you heard of this? Well, there doesn’t seem to be any way corporations can make a buck out of this kind of low technology. Nor any way for government to tax it. Our university research departments are dependent on contracts from big companies to develop new products to sell – as in medicine, research is dedicated to find marketable products to treat symptoms, not to find cures. The universities (and government) natural role of doing the basic research needed to advance natural farming was subverted, is not done, and certainly not talked about.

Anyway, grandma did know best, and a return to natural agriculture as she practiced it is under way and we will all be saved. Especially here in the Wabigoon Valley. Natural food, Yay!!

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